Question: What are the useful properties of oxygen? What is it about oxygen that keeps us alive, what does it do?

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  1. Oxygen is a very powerful oxidising agent, which means it’s very good at taking electrons from other molecules (It’s so good at taking electrons from other molecules that the process of oxidation is named after oxygen). Many processes that happen in the body require an oxidising agent, and oxygen is a convenient one for the body to use. This is because there’s lots of it in the atmosphere, it’s powerful, and it’s small (so can easily be transported around the body).

    Not all life needs oxygen, some bacteria found in polluted soil can use chemicals called chloroalkanes as an oxidising agent instead of oxygen. This is really interesting as chloroalkanes are normally considered as toxic waste product.



  1. Oxygen is necessary for most of our cells to produce energy using the nutrients that we eat. However, my lab studies the effect of growing embryonic stem cells in very little oxygen. We find that embryonic stem cells are actually happier – they are less likely to change into other types of cells – when we grow them with less oxygen available. Oxygen is very important for survival of many of our cells, but it is actually not good for some of our cells – our stem cells.